I’ve never experienced sexual harassment in the tech industry

But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe other women when they come forward with their personal experiences, or that I don’t think it’s an industry-wide problem in the Silicon Valley.

Myself and my sister killing time with the webcam when we were both studying to be engineers at Holberton School.

I’ve only been working as an engineer for a few months. In that time, I’ve been lucky to work on a team where I feel respected and treated well by other individuals regardless of my gender. I’m also lucky that there are two other female engineers on my team, so I don’t have to experience that feeling of being ‘the only one.’

Just because I’ve been lucky so far, however, does not mean it won’t ever happen to me (read: Three Phases of Technical Women by Cate Huston, see section “Ignorance is Bliss”). Nor do I feel I need to personally experience it within my career to believe other women do.

That’s the thing with statistics, you see. If the majority of women in tech say they’ve experienced gender discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace over their career, and I happen to be in the minority that has not, my experience does not suddenly invalidate their own personal experiences. It does not suddenly mean there is no cultural problem at large in tech, that women are simply making it up when they say there is a problem.

Why do I feel the need to belabor this? If only I didn’t need to.

When Susan J. Fowler published an account of her experiences at Uber yesterday, the lines of gendered experience were palpable in the reactions to her story. Almost immediately, my twitter feed was filled with women tweeting the story, commenting with their frustrations, sharing parallels with their own experiences. Clearly, the story resonated with many other women.

In the meantime, men came out of the woodwork to warn about confirmation bias, or (if they did share the story) in many cases shared the story as if it is an exception particular to Uber, without necessarily recognizing that similar things happen to women throughout the industry — reading it as an individual occurrence instead of part of a larger problem in tech.

It reminds me of a time when a respected tech mentor shared this article (My positive experience as a woman in tech by Lea Verou) which made my stomach turn and twist. In retrospect, the author clearly states she does not share her story to discount the negative experiences of other women in tech. But we can just look the way her story was interpreted in one of the comments:

Thank you for speaking this out, Lea. It takes courage to expose positive experiences in the era when distorted perception of gender inequality is such a powerful trend.
I’m not saying, of course, that there is no such problem in the industry, there is. The same as there is sometimes bullying, narrow-mindedness, low moral standards, and all sorts of biases. But obviously, if you interact with smart people, you will mostly get positive experiences, since being unbiased is a vital part of being smart, and when you deal with not so bright people, you will face all sorts of problems anyway, sexism is only one of possible outcomes. Tech community mostly consist of great and smart people, who only give you great experiences, that’s why I so much appreciate being a part of this community and happy that people like you are on the top of it to inspire others.

Is there a problem or isn’t there? Perhaps what this person is saying is there is a problem, but it’s not specific to the tech industry. Or perhaps they are saying #notalltechpeople or #notallmen, and that it’s important to recognize the positive experiences you may derive from interacting with smart people in the tech industry instead of focusing on all this myopic sensational news about gender in tech which casts the industry in a certain, misleading light.

In this industry, there’s a certain valorization of rationalism and statistics. We pride ourselves on our ability to logic rationally and rely on facts above gut feelings. We also hold a candle to the story of meritocracy— the idea that any college dropout can achieve success, that the best ideas rise to the surface; we achieve disruption, we innovate, build fast ship fast.

What if this reliance on rationalism and this idea of exceptionalism makes it easy to dismiss what you don’t experience first-hand?

I mean, why should you care, when the issue doesn’t affect you? There’s this attitude — well, maybe there is some sexism in the workplace. That’s to be expected. So what? That’s the exception. It sucks. Suck it up and/or stand up for yourself. There are assholes and bigots everywhere. It’s a part of daily life, and you should have a thick skin. Don’t make it out to be bigger than what it is, which is a normal part of life. (It definitely does not have to do with the fact that there are a lot of white males in this industry that don’t experience sexism first-hand, and that companies care more about profit margins and protecting their reputation than female employees.)

Even though I haven’t experienced these issues professionally, I don’t find it hard to believe other women when they say they do because I’ve experienced the attitudes at the root of them in my personal life. Gender discrimination and sexual harassment result from widespread and normalized societal attitudes that women experience on a daily basis. From catcalling, outright aggression to the casual but undermining assumptions, when you’ve walked this earth 20 years as a woman, you’ll probably have experienced it in one form or another.

It’s easy to dismiss anecdotes as unscientific data. So let’s talk about cognitive bias. What about the confirmation bias from trying to judge whether an issue exists and thinking, but I’ve never witnessed or experienced it myself so it must not exist (or matter much)?

Maybe you’re a white or non-white male in tech reading this and you don’t think like this. But consider your reaction to this latest story at Uber and compare it to those of the women who work in technology that you know. Do you genuinely care or do you just kind of register it on the “hmm” scale? Do you stay away from joining any potentially sticky conversations about it? Compare how many men you know taking a stand on the issue versus the vocal reactions of women. Ever think you were part of the problem?

Further reading: